People sometimes ask if I prefer transparency over privacy, as a society can’t have both. The premise is wrong. It’s a sliding scale, and perfect privacy for the individual citizen and a fully transparent government are both necessary.
On the surface, transparency stands at odds with privacy. If you have transparency of government, how can you have privacy for the people at the same time? You can. The keyword to note is “transparency of government“. The successful societies of our time have all had transparent governments, while at the same time, they have secured civil liberties for the individual citizens.
What this means is that the seven privacies – the privacy of body, correspondence, data, economy, identity, location, and territory – are instilled as fundamental civil liberties for every citizen to varying degrees of sanctity. In healthy societies, they may only be broken by dedicated law enforcement agencies on individual and prior suspicion of a serious and identified crime.
However, for democracy to work, we must be able to collectively audit if the people we elect – no, hire – to run our society have done a good job at doing so, and to collectively make sure that they don’t have a conflict of interest in carrying out their duties. This requires transparency in policymaking and government.
Therefore, the individual citizen in a perfect society has perfect privacy. However, as an individual decides to run for public office, they give up some of that privacy in return for the candidacy of that public office, where some transparency is required. It’s a sliding scale – the janitor at the municipal office probably can’t hurt society much by having conflicts of interest, but a prime minister certainly can. The more potential damage by conflicts of interest, the greater the necessary transparency.
In a healthy society, all policymaking is fully transparent, all governmental documents public by default, and the public has anonymous access to the voting rooms where laws are made. The ordinary citizens have a right to privacy as they go about their daily lives. (When this principle is taken to a more perfect society than the one we have today, it follows that the government cannot collect private data on citizens, as governmental records are public. But we’re not there yet.)
In contrast, all contemporary and historic societies where citizens have been transparently scrutinized and all power wielded behind closed doors can be kindly described as “low-happiness” societies.
Privacy and transparency are not mutually exclusive. We need privacy for the citizens and transparency in our governments.